Real set-aside reform

Pub date March 17, 2009
WriterMarc Solomon
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

Whenever conservative elements within San Francisco’s political mix put forth measures that carry the moniker "good government," liberals, progressives, and those of us concerned that good government serve the people rather than the corporations should take notice.

Last year, one so-called good government measure usurped the right of four members of the Board of Supervisors to check a mayoral veto by putting a measure on the ballot at the last minute. The reform imposed a requirement that hearings be held before the supervisors put any legislation on the ballot.

Never mind that empirical evidence shows no correlation between the route to the ballot and the quality of measures; good as well as crap has made it onto the ballot and into law from all origins. Never mind that there were other ways to ensure that voter-initiated ordinances were amendable and flexible. Downtown wanted to crimp the power of the Board of Supervisors and our neighborhoods and, with the help of some progressives, succeeded.

They’re back at it again, as government grapples with revenue shortfalls caused by the second Great Depression, a depression caused by the economic policies championed by our local conservative/moderate coalition. We are seeing another effort at good government that would only benefit those who wish to destroy popular public services, to enable Reaganism, and to wipe away much of the public sector.

In order to secure a dedicated, reliable stream of funding, activists have run campaigns to create set-asides for various public programs. The earliest funded the San Francisco Symphony during the first Great Depression. Since then, programs that carry great public appeal, from the Children’s Fund to the Open Space Fund to Muni have been given set-asides by the votes.

The proposal on the table now would change the way the city handles budget set-asides, ostensibly to allow greater flexibility during tough times. It would allow the Board of Supervisors, under certain budgetary shortfall conditions, to dip into funds earmarked for particular purposes. But the result would be dangerous to the ongoing essential function of government. And the proposal would prevent the voters from solving a problem created by our City Charter — the inability to do multiyear budgeting.

What this city needs is a way for voters to express their long-term funding priorities and to hold the feet of elected officials to the fire in funding those priorities — but in a manner that accounts for the vicissitudes of the economy.

The reason the city can’t do multiyear budgeting without a Charter set aside is that any regular ordinance passed by the board and the mayor can override any other ordinance. One way to approach the problem: amend the charter to create a new class of ordinance, one that would allow for multiyear budgeting. This class of ordinance would need to be classified as a multiyear budget ordinance when proposed, and would require either a vote of the people or a super majority at the Board of Supervisors and a mayoral signature to enact.

The multiyear budgeting ordinances would govern subsequent years’ budgets and could be overridden only with a super-majority vote, and only under conditions of economic hardship. In normal times, the city could set longer-term spending priorities for projects and priorities that last longer than one budget year, as well as those areas that are important to San Franciscans year in and year out. *

Marc Salomon is a neighborhood activist in San Francisco.